The Rolling Stairs

By the Laws of Physics, What Goes Up...

Routine journeys are often made on autopilot. By car, bicycle, train or foot, rarely do we need to renegotiate each step. We just go rolling along, while our conscious mind frolics elsewhere. Any rupture in the routine, though, brings us tumbling back to the here and now: rain, road works, pedestrians… Or a broken escalator in the U-Bahn.

Let’s not exaggerate, a broken escalator is nothing more than a minor inconvenience. Still, even for those not laden with shopping bags, baby buggies or creaking knees, the thought of facing the stairs can be irksome. Indeed, on some days, an unlucky combination of stations seems to offer only idle steel.

It’s at that point that you may well ask yourself, what is going on?

Well, let’s take a glance back in time first, through the thick fog enshrouding late Victorian London to where it all began – Earl’s Court Underground Station and the unveiling of the first ‘magic stairway.’ Intended to keep human traffic flowing, commuters were initially so reluctant to risk a trip on the new contraption that a one-legged man, “Bumper” Harris, was hired to ride up and down for a whole week to demonstrate how safe and easy it was.

Nearly a century later, remarkably little has changed in escalator design since Bumper’s day: A pair of rotating chain loops still pulls a series of stairs in a continuous cycle. This simple yet powerful concept with one weak link: a gap, up to 4mm in width, leading deep down into the heart of the machine and exposing its vital organs. Even the smallest pebble slipping into this gap could be the stone that left David’s sling, able to cripple any Goliath of an escalator — at up to 12 million euros a piece.

Which means constant servicing on each Vienna’s 333 U-Bahn escalators.

Fresh off the production line, each unit is mollycoddled in its youth: Engineers jump inside monthly and spend up to eight hours cleaning, massaging and meticulously adjusting its moving parts. Once a year it receives a thorough check-up from the Technischen Überwachungs-Verein Österreich, and somewhere between its third and fourth birthday it’s overhauled completely, and rested for five to ten days in the process.

At its fifth birthday, the service contract may stay with our unit’s maker, or the Wiener Linien may decide to care for it themselves. Either way, regular servicing continues as before. And should our trusty workhorse experience any unexpected problems, engineers will rush in and have it up and running again within a day.

But after fifteen years of hard labour, our unit will begin to show irreversible signs of age. Still it is serviced monthly, although only those changes deemed necessary for passenger safety are made, and replacements are lined up, awaiting its retirement. Finally, after some 20 odd years and some €400,000 maintenance, the old timer is carted off to its final resting place.

So that’s the nuts and bolts of it: Escalators are prone to wear and tear, and maintenance is all part of the plan. So the next time you’re rolling slowly upwards, and the faint giggling of Bumper’s ghost tickles your ear, remember that it may not always be this easy. The laws of physics cannot be broken, and what goes up must, eventually, break down.

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